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The Munich Agreement of 1938 teaches us that appeasement never works… or does it?
The Munich Agreement of 1938 teaches us that appeasement never works… or does it?

In September 1938, European statesmen gathered in Munich for a fateful conference. Hitler wanted to annex the Sudetenland, a German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia; Britain and France, desperate to avoid war with Nazi Germany, caved in and granted the Führer’s request. It was hoped that Hitler’s appetite for territorial expansion would be sated: Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s prime minister, proclaimed that the concession had achieved “peace for our time“. Within a year, Hitler had invaded Poland and the Second World War had begun. The policy of appeasement, it appeared, had failed and forever would fail – or so it came to be thought.

As the twentieth century evolved, ‘appeasement’ evolved into a term of abuse that would automatically discredit the granting of concessions to satisfy an opponent. What had previously referred to the pacific settlement of disputes through pragmatic negotiation, argues historian David Dilks, “came to indicate something sinister, the granting from fear or cowardice of unwarranted concessions in order to buy temporary peace at someone else’s expense”. The spectre of Munich came to hang over every international crisis: the Korea, Vietnam, Falklands and Suez wars were all justified in terms of the inevitable failure of appeasement. Most recently, the willingness of the West to allow Crimea to fall to Russia has been denounced as ‘appeasement’, and it is common to hear the crisis spoken of as ‘Obama’s Munich‘.

Instead of being used as an example of how appeasement might not work under certain conditions, Munich thus came to be invoked as ostensible evidence that appeasement never works, nor could it work, full stop. ‘Munich’ became a substitute for an argument: a lazy shorthand for drawing parallels between radically different historical episodes, highlighting the commonalities, downplaying the differences, and thereby resting on the implicit and fallacious assumption that the lessons of one period must automatically inform another.

The 2005 Gaza Disengagement was Israel’s Munich moment: in Israeli discourse, ‘Gaza’ is to ‘unilateral withdrawal’ what ‘Munich’ is to ‘appeasement’. Israel withdrew its army and 8,000 settlers from Gaza Strip; the power vacuum was soon filled by Hamas, and this densely populated coastal strip became a launching pad for thousands of rockets against Israeli civilian areas, provoking two mini-wars.

The evacuation of Gaza: how much can we predict about the future by inferring from the past?
The evacuation of Gaza: how much can we predict about the future by inferring from the past?

Gaza, therefore, has loomed large over the Israeli public consciousness as compelling proof of the futility of unilateral territorial withdrawals – or, as some would have it, of the folly of territorial concession at all. On the right, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has expressed bafflement that anyone might “toy with such a dangerous idea after the utter failure of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza“. On the left, former MK Uri Avnery rejects unilateralism as “stupid”, arguing: “It’s considered a symptom of insanity when you do something and fail, and then try to do the same thing again and again”.

The problem, however, is that no two policy challenges are ever identical: and what may work in one context may not work in another, where certain key variables are different. Nowadays, public policy analysts are keen on evidence-based policy: instead of assuming that a policy will work here because it worked somewhere else, analysts try to produce objective evaluations by running randomised control trials. Since it is impossible to run experiments with major political events, political scientists try to aggregate evidence from history, isolate key variables and draw scientific inferences. The process is not foolproof, but it is an improvement on the Munich method.

Reasoning by analogy generally involves a failure to scrutinise why a future context be relevantly different from the last. Consider how a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank might be relevantly different from Gaza, undermining the claim that a post-occupation West Bank would become ‘another Gaza’: withdrawal might remove only the settlers, not the IDF; it might be concluded in stages; it might not involve abandoning control over smuggling routes; it could leave behind more robust political institutions; and it would take place at a higher level of prosperity than in Gaza. All these factors matter: if you tweak variables, you manipulate outcomes.

Moreover, fundamental differences between different historical contexts mean that attempts to analyse one episode through the lens of another can produce serious distortions, distracting one salient factors and overemphasising irrelevant similarities. Political analyst Daniel Berman argues, for example, that the relevant parallel between Munich and Crimea is not about appeasement as such but the failure to set clear red lines. Even where parallels exist, therefore, arguing by analogy encourages us to overlook what is relevant in favour of what has been elevated by popular history.

No rational policy analyst could conclude that a policy is doomed to failure simply because it failed in a different context the past: this conclusion rests on a failure to interrogate the reasons for failure, and whether all relevant factors would be present in the context under consideration. This is a political fallacy of the highest order.

Human beings, however, are not perfectly rational creatures: we commit fallacies. And as psychologists (including Israel’s own Daniel Kahneman) have demonstrated, we rely heavily on ‘cognitive shortcuts’ to navigate complicated decisions: it is impossible to apply a scientific method to every decision we face. Our instinctive desire for simplicity induces us, unconsciously, to be blinded to nuance; and when we simplify the definition of a problem, we limit the range of options that can be rationally discussed. This psychological proclivity is compounded by our equally strong desire for consistency: since we become uncomfortable when presented with information that contradicts our beliefs, we seek out (and are more likely to be convinced by) evidence that confirms our existing beliefs. In conjunction, it becomes extremely difficult to change the minds of people who are fixed on conclusions inferred through analogical reasoning, even if it is rational for them to soberly reconsider.

Israel cannot be held captive to policymaking by analogy and shallow reasoning on matters of security. That is why many highly intelligent, extremely well-informed and deeply experienced members of the Israeli political establishment suport the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank as a Plan B: former IDF Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi; former ambassador to the US, Michael Oren; former prime minister Ehud Barak; former Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin; and former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon are all in favour.

Israel should learn the lessons of the past; but this does not mean assuming that just because a plan for the future bears superficial similarities to the past, that the past is doomed to repeat itself.

This blog first appeared in The Times of Israel

Eylon Aslan-Levy is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Cambridge, where he is writing his thesis on the role of the exodus of Jewish refugees from the Arab world in the formulation of Israel’s foreign policy. 

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